Of Summaries and Symmetries…

June 11, 2010 at 3:16 am (Uncategorized)

The clear advantage for me of Llew’s continued late nights in the office is that I too remain at my desk working, whereas otherwise I psychologically and literally switch off as soon as I know he’s coming home. Last night found me still immersed in the MS when Llew walked in the door after 10 pm; I hadn’t moved except to take Nature’s calls and to make one of my own to the local Thai, because frankly I get tired of cooking dinner for two only to end up eating alone (exhibit A: Wednesday night, when I celebrated reaching Week 12 of the pregnancy by cooking a blue cheese sauce to the safe-to-eat boiling point, which then accompanied a rocket and walnut gnocchi, a dish that unfortunately did not reward reheating hours later when Llew got home). Last night I decided I’d invest that time in the MS instead; dining at the desk has been the dominant feature of this week.

This is phase two of the current redraft: it’s a line edit, but I’m simultaneously writing up a page-by-page breakdown. It’s a very clarifying document; I did it for the first time over a year ago, at the first Darkling trip to JB’s shack at Aireys Inlet, when it proved phenomenally useful, and it’s time to do it again. Summarising the action of each page in a sentence is an interesting task in itself, but what I like most about this exercise is the way it simplifies my ability to move around the text. Oddly disjunctive passages also leap out like a raging case of hives, so if something isn’t working or is in the wrong spot, it scabs and starts itching immediately it hits the summary. I don’t know why it first occurred to me to do this, and I’m not sure if anyone else does it, but it definitely works for me. As editing aids go, it’s a document that’s also very compatible with the needs of this particular MS, which contains a story within a story. It’s very helpful being able to see at a glance whether these two narratives exist in a state of harmony or hostility as far as the overall structure goes. Basically, I rate it.

I’m enjoying Her Fearful Symmetry, although I’ve had a nasty shock very early on: it contains an exact storyline match with an important back-story in my second MS (an incomplete draft currently frozen and gathering dust at just over 43,000 words). An awful barren world immediately opened up in which I sat wondering, gooseflesh rising, if now I would have no choice but to toss the lot and start from scratch…not an experience I’d recommend to anyone. It was really quite bleak. But I hope there won’t be any need for truly drastic changes… now I’m feeling a bit less feverish about it, I can see (well, I haven’t finished reading the novel yet, so talk to me in a few days…) that from that pivotal point onwards things proceed completely differently, but I’m still disconcerted by the parallel. It is not what any writer ever wants to see, particularly not when you’re the aspirant rather than the established author.

I suppose it must happen all the time…certainly it’s not unusual to read a scene and think, ‘Oh, that reminds me so much of such and such,’ or, ‘That’s just how it happened in X.’ There is, after all, a finite number of possible family relations, which logically suggests that there may also be a cap on what such characters might reasonably be expected to do to each other, so cross-textual intersections are unavoidable. Still, when I do return to MS # 2 – damned if I know when that will be – it’ll be armed with this new knowledge, I can’t unlearn it now, and it changes things. I don’t really see that I can keep things exactly as they were – why would I even want to, now I know someone else has already used it, and that someone else is Audrey Niffenegger? As the Brits say, bugger.



  1. Charlotte said,

    Damn thosse symmetries! On a much smaller scale, I’m reading The Lacuna and Kingsolver uses a phrase that I wrote a year ago, one that all my betas have commented on with a little Nice! in the margins.

    Now everyone’s going to think I stole it, when actually Kingsolver stole it from me.

    • doctordi said,

      Oh, Charlotte of the Burg, that SUCKS. I think we all know that feeling of being attached to our best phrases – it involves privately preening over their perfection – and to be robbed of one of these rare gems… ugh.

      We’ll all know the truth, never fear. Never trust a Kingsolver.

  2. Charlotte said,

    Just coming back to say I think HFS is TTW’s paler, less interesting sister. I’m sure your story is a million times more gripping.

    • doctordi said,

      Well, the movie of The Time Traveller’s Wife utterly ruined the idea of reading the novel for me. It was an in-flight option coming back from Shanghai, and talk about BORING…

      I’ve only heard since how much better the book is, but I think I’ll still pass.

  3. litlove said,

    Don’t think twice about the similarities – a few years ago both Colm Toibin and David Lodge published fictional accounts of the life of Henry James, within a few weeks of each other. Can you imaging how they felt? Well, David Lodge describes it, actually, in an excellent long essay called ‘The Year of Writing Henry James’. He was devastated. But in fact the similarity whipped up a fair amount of publicity and both books did very well. I would be astonished if anyone actually noticed similar back stories – after all, there are only 7 plots in the universe, so we must be used to repetition.

    Interesting about the line summaries – I should try that one of these days.

    • doctordi said,

      Yeah, I agree, LL, but god, that Lodge/Toibin scenario is heartbreaking!

      That was a fear right throughout my PhD, actually… I kept imagining someone submitting the exact same thesis a few months ahead of me. It was a ghastly, sick anxiety, but it was a paranoia that probably helped get me over the line.

      Having finished Her Fearful Symmetry, I am no longer concerned in the slightest. There’s really nothing except this one thing in common, and as my second MS is still in its infancy, this one minor point may well end up on the cutting room floor anyway. It’s backstory for me and didn’t go anywhere similar in HFS. Phew!

      I do find the line summary useful and would be so happy if someone else did too!!

  4. bookgazing said,

    An other blogger has just found out that the manuscript she thought had the best chance of getting picked up is based on almost exactly the same idea as a book that just came out. She was gutted and it’s a sci-fi dystopian type thing so the originality of the conceit is pretty important.

    But then as litlove says there are often books that come out at exactly the same time that are very similar…and readers lap them up because everyone likes a million different versions of similar events.

    • doctordi said,

      Hideous, hideous – although LL is right, bookgazing, they say there’s only seven basic plots to be had, so really it’s the treatment of the conceit rather than the conceit itself that shores up a book’s originality – even in sci-fi dystopian visions. I hope she doesn’t lose heart.

      Yes, that’s also true. Sometimes the coincidence turns itself very neatly into a most serendipitous trend!!

  5. Lilian Nattel said,

    The line a page summary sounds like an interesting editing idea. Isn’t it a wonderful feeling to be so immersed?

    • doctordi said,

      It works for me, Lilian, which is why I thought I’d share it here… people struggle with such different parts of the process, but it does help me. Yes, the immersion is good, very satisfying particularly because I was having trouble motivating myself to return to the MS not so long ago. It helps having a very clear, finite and almost administrative task to do, which is another benefit of the summary.

  6. Grad said,

    Those of us who haven’t written anything other than letters or blog posts (or legal briefs – which are a yawn) are getting a wonderful insight into the work life of an author. It’s a kind of virtual “Take Your Friends To Work Day.” It’s a lot harder that I thought! Wouldn’t it be awful to have started writing a book about….oh…let’s say a school of witchcraft and wizardry and then…boom! That’s enough to send someone to drink.

  7. doctordi said,

    Grad, it is SO MUCH HARDER than I thought. But I love – love, love, LOVE – reading about everyone’s writing practices, published and unpublished writers both (as an aspirant, I can’t call myself an ‘author’ – I think that’s a privilege reserved for those with published books), so I hoped you guys felt the same way and that maybe someone out there might even think this sounded like something that might benefit them. A burden shared…

    Reading your comment, I realise how inflated the anxiety really is, because of course in the wake of Harry Potter came a flood of deliberate imitations hoping to ride his quidditch stick – an unintentional coincidence will always reveal itself to be nothing but that, and actual similarities will probably prove limited. So I’m not going to worry about this anymore – at university I used to fret constantly about being falsely accused of plagiarism, I think every writer abhors plagiarism, until I realised that, well, I had nothing to fear, because I’d never plagiarise, and I think I need to apply the same commonsense here.

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